Should High Schools Routinely Test for Marijuana?

Trinity High School, located in Louisville, Kentucky, is to begin mandatory drug and alcohol testing during the 2015 school year. Rick Wilking/Reuters

During a recent visit to my parents, I heard a news report regarding a local high school's new drug policy. Trinity High School, located in Louisville, Kentucky, is to begin mandatory drug and alcohol testing during the 2015 school year.

The school cited how early kids are experimenting with drugs as a major factor in its decision. Approximately 75 percent of the students will be tested in the 2015-16 school year. Further down the road, all students will be tested randomly throughout the year.

In a press release on the policy, the school stated it wanted to empower students to resist drugs. When confronted with a situation in which drugs and alcohol are present, Trinity students can now say, "I can't. My school tests."

My first reaction to this story was one of sheer bafflement. Imagine walking around your high school as a 16-year-old sophomore. You're headed to class when some guidance counselor, principal or other staff member hands you a plastic cup. Nothing goes with a statistics test like calculating the probability a random school administrator will ask you to pee in a cup.

This certainly isn't the first time random drug testing has come up in the news. In fact, most schools drug test their student athletes. A plurality of schools test students who engage in extra-curricular activities and nearly a quarter of schools test all their students.

Stories of testing welfare recipients, workers and other groups have garnered serious attention and pushback. In one such case from 2013, a federal District Court struck down a Florida law that required all applicants for the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit to drug testing, citing Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches by the government.

The case of Trinity High School is a little different. While the government cannot legally compel drug testing of a group just because they're poor, the same cannot be said for this high school and their students.

Trinity is a private Catholic school. Parents elect to send their children to the school and pay some $13,000 a year for their education. As such, the school can broadly test their students for simply being in the group that statistically experiments with drugs. Since parents are entering into this contract voluntarily and have viable alternatives (in fact, there are two other all-male Catholic high schools in the city), those offended by the new policy have little recourse.

So while I won't condemn a private institution for implementing its own policies regarding drugs and alcohol, parents and administrators at Trinity and other high schools considering similar policies should think about the consequences of such a rule, and look at some data.

First, such a policy is particularly costly. One study conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union found that such testing costs schools about $3,000 per positive result.

What is more important than this raw number, however, is what economists call the "opportunity cost" of these tests. That is, what else could a school spend this money on? As it turns out, there are a variety of alternatives to these tests, like drug education, counseling, extracurricular activities, etc. The aforementioned study found that these methods were more effective at keeping young people away from drugs than random testing.

Second, random drug tests have not been found to be particularly effective. A significant body of work, in fact, has found that such policies not only failed to reduce drug use but in some cases led to increased use of harder drugs among students. (See here, here, here and here for examples.)

The data is so overwhelming, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against using such testing as a cornerstone of school drug policy.

Moreover, such a policy is likely to encourage high school students to ingest some potentially very harmful substances. As we have observed with the rise of new ways to get high, like huffing keyboard cleaner, "bath salts" and synthetic marijuana, people interested in doing drugs will find a way.

The students of Trinity and other high schools that adopt random screening policies are more likely to try these and other substances to avoid having a positive drug test. They'll look for substances the test won't detect. It isn't difficult to see how ingesting these substances may be significantly worse than something like alcohol or pot.

No parent hopes his or her child will grow up to be a drug user. School administrators understandably don't want an institution in which drug use is encouraged and fostered. But when it comes to how we choose to educate and equip our children for dealing with peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, it's important we get the facts straight.

Not only does this policy grossly offend the personal privacy of students, but the data show it's unlikely to have the desired effect. Although the policy implemented by this school in my hometown is likely well intentioned, I predict it will be largely ineffective and may lead to more students using particularly dangerous substances.

Abigail Hall is a research fellow with the Independent Institute, a Ph.D. candidate and the JIN Fellow in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This article first appeared on The Beacon, the Independent Institute's blog.